the hidden reasons why you might not like yourself
You have to see it to be it. — Billie Jean King
In the upcoming book, What Will It Take To Make a Woman President?, Maya Angelou says this:
If you have a person enslaved, the first thing you must do is to convince yourself that the person is subhuman and won’t mind the enslavement.
The second thing you must do is convince your allies that the person is subhuman, so that you have some support.
But the third and the unkindest cut of all is to convince that person that he or she is not quite a first-class citizen. When the complete job has been done, the initiator can go back years later and ask, “Why don’t you people like yourselves more?”
How we see ourselves reflected in our environment shapes our sense of who we are — and by extension, what we’re worth.
In 1981, a Harvard psychologist named Ellen Langer performed a study on two groups of men. Each group spent a week in isolation at a New Hampshire monastery that time-traveled them back to the 1950s.
The first group was told to pretend that they were young men again, living in 1959.
The second group was told to simply compare memories and talk about that era.
As this article reports:
Both groups were surrounded by mid-century mementos—1950s issues of Lifemagazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio—and they discussed the events of the time: the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Castro’s victory ride into Havana, Nikita Khrushchev and the need for bomb shelters.
There was entertainment (a screening of the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart) and spirited discussions of such 1950s sports greats as Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson. One night, the men sat glued to the radio, listening as Royal Orbit won the 1959 Preakness. For the second group it brought back a flood of memories; for the other group, it was a race being run for the first time.
…. [The results] surprised even her own team of researchers.
Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board. Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis. But the men who had acted as if they were actually back in 1959 showed significantly more improvement. Those who had impersonated younger men seemed to have bodies that actually were younger.
….. “Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow,” she told an audience of nearly 400 at a recent lecture. Her results, she knows, can push the limits of credibility, but she revels in that space: “At the end of the [monastery] study, I was playing football—touch, but still football—with these men, some of whom gave up their canes,” she tells the audience.
“It is not our physical state that limits us,” she explains—it is our mindset about our own limits, our perceptions, that draws the lines in the sand.
In a recent blog post, Heather Plett asks: Am I really ready to trust the feminine, or will the plane crash?:
She is referring to an anecdote about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
It goes something like this: Tutu gets on a plane and sees that the pilots have the same color skin as his own. My people are flying the plane, he thinks with triumph. We’re making progress!
Then, in the air, they hit turbulence. As the Archbishop feels the ragged drop and lurch, he suddenly wonders if these pilots are worthy of the task; if they’re about to crash the plane.
Plett recognizes the same kind of conditioning in her secret doubt about the feminine. She admits she feels more validated when the person praising her work is a man:
Though I’ve been a feminist for almost as long as I’ve known the definition of the word, I serve on the board of a feminist organization, I’ve fought my way through the glass ceiling to senior leadership positions, and I write and teach a lot about women’s leadership, there still remain some instinctual, deep-rooted beliefs that I am not fully worthy because I am a woman.
Or… Let me correct that… It’s not simply an unworthiness of me as a woman (because I’ve gotten quite used to women in power, have been in positions of power myself, and don’t think I have any deep-seated issues that I need to excavate in that regard). It’s more of a sense that the feminine (whether it appears in women or men) is not quite worthy of power.
Is this so surprising?
Walk through a day, any day, with a scientist’s eyes. Observe and listen. Pretend this culture is a giant gender experiment, much like the one by Ellen Langer that reshaped the experience of aging through the power of suggestion alone.
How are we, as the participants in this experiment, cued to think about men?
How are we cued to think about women?
Some people will argue that the differences between men and women are biologically rooted, and I believe that up to a point.
The problem is how we can know, exactly, where biology leaves off and the environment kicks in. When nature itself favors diversity (so people will be wildly different even from girl to girl and boy to boy), and the environment influences the mind so strongly that the body physically changes as a result.
It would be fun to alter the experiment a bit.
Pretend that all those scantily clad, provocatively posed young women that you see in ads, billboards, movies, magazines and music videos were being celebrated for courage, strength, accomplishment, and daring.
Pretend that all those blockbuster summer movies centered around the girlfriend, which would mean that she was no longer the girlfriend but the protagonist, maybe even a hero.
Pretend that any American history class paid almost as much attention to Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth as it does to Martin Luther King.
Pretend that women as powerful as Janet Reno or Hillary Clinton were treated with respect and even reverence in the media – or at least without verbal abuse.
Pretend that a traditionally female profession such as teaching was just as prestigious and lucrative as a traditionally male profession such as law.
Pretend that the major religions showed people a God equally recognized as feminine and masculine, Mother as well as Father.
Pretend that the word ‘cunt’ actually wasn’t an insult that both genders hurl not just at women but also men (whereas I have yet to hear a woman accused of being a dick, or some other representative of male genitalia.)
Pretend that women were just as encouraged to fulfill their creative and professional ambitions as they are to ‘opt out’ and stay at home, and that men were just as encouraged to take paternity leave and bond with their infants and young children.
Pretend that Jonathan Franzen was openly thrilled when Oprah chose his novel THE CORRECTIONS for her Book Club, because he respected “midwestern housewives” as an intelligent audience.
Pretend that the hard and gifted work of motherhood was recognized financially, and not just given lip service.
The results could be very interesting.
I wrote a blog post entitled: What if girls were rewarded for being authentic instead of being thin?
In the comments section, a smart and sassy young woman said:
The designer in me that’s sat through lots of branding meetings makes me think we either need a new word; or that “feminine” needs a good re-branding. I’ve never liked the word much. Practically by definition it means small, delicate, (delicate i.e.: breakable). I prefer the word “womanly” myself. Seems to have a bit more weight and power with it.
What she was asking strikes me as another version of this: Am I really ready to trust the feminine or will the plane crash?
I will leave you with my response:
This culture is built on a contempt for the feminine, which means it needs to perceive the feminine as exactly how you described: weak, frivolous, girly, etc.
We could switch to another word (womanliness is a good one) but it still doesn’t change this idea that feminine = weak, and so long as that idea is still out there, the damage will continue to be done.
Even women (some women) learn to distance themselves from ‘the feminine’ — to mock it, to disdain it, all those bad jokes about Lifetime movies – in order to align themselves with power or identify themselves as powerful. Which, when you think about it, is a rather neat mindfuck….to be a woman who is essentially disowning her own womanhood.
Thing is, if you look at depictions of femininity before patriarchy whitewashed and downsized it, you can see that it was actually pretty badass (as represented by goddess figures like Inanna. She rocked it.) I’d like to see it not rebranded so much as reclaimed, filled out, made whole. Imagine what it would be like if ‘feminine’ was a concept that inspired you and made you proud — what that might do to your sense of self.
Now that would be a revolution.